For success early with young plant growth, the Farm Journal Test Plots focus on starter fertilizer
With the correct management moves, starter fertilizer can give a corn crop a boost as well as advance maturity. Farm Journal Field Agronomists Ken Ferrie and Missy Bauer led efforts to examine starter rates, products and placement. Ferrie ran test plots looking at starter placement and rates, and Bauer wrapped up a multi-year study on starter fertilizer.
Site for Success
The key to maximizing the response to starter fertilizer is placing the right nutrients in the right zone.
"It’s important to put phosphorus close to the young root system," Ferrie says. "On the flip side, when a crop needs nitrogen, it can be placed further away or even dribbled on top and be effectively taken up by the plant."
At two locations in Central Illinois, Ferrie and his team tested the following attachments that offer a range of placements relative to the seed: Huckstep shoe, ¾" beside by ½" below the seed; Schaffert Generation 2 fertilizer disk, 2" to the side of the seed; Yetter 2959 injection coulter,
2" beside by 1" below the seed; Yetter 2968 row-unit mount in-between fertilizer opener, 2" beside and slightly below the seed; and the Keeton Seed Firmer in-furrow.
These attachments were also used in plots in 2011, except now the Schaffert Gen 2 features a nozzle and it has replaced the Gen 1 that applied fertilizer with a hose dragging behind the row unit. [See "Strategic Placement," Farm Journal, February 2012.]
"On average, we could expect a 7 bu. to 10 bu. response to starter beside and below the seed and a 3 bu. to 5 bu. response to in-furrow application. In 2012, we saw some 11 bu. and 12 bu. responses to adding pop-up alone," Ferrie says.
However, applying starter in-furrow carries risk. While one location showed a significant response, there were problems in a few situations with in-furrow fertilizer in spring 2012.
"This past year we had double the amount of starter burn calls due to the dry conditions," Ferrie says.
The seed roots, the first to emerge, can be impacted by banded fertilizer placed nearby. The early uptake provides a quick visual response. The fertilizer placed farther away comes in contact with the crown roots, and those results are evident when the plant is older.
"From our studies, I’ve seen that pop-up can provide that first boost for the plant and then banded fertilizer placed to the side and below the surface can give it a second-round growth spurt early in the season," Ferrie explains. "The in-between placement is the shoe, which can catch the seed roots but because it is close to the seed it carries higher risks with higher rates."
When the plant takes up more nutrients earlier, growth accelerates and pushes maturity forward. The 10 bu. to 12 bu. responses to pop-up could have been due to pushing that hybrid into a more favorable time for pollination.
In the eastern Corn Belt, Missy Bauer concluded a multi-year starter test plot program in 2012 looking at fertilizer blends and placement options.
"Most likely changing the maturity put this hybrid in a sweet spot at the end," Ferrie explains. "We had another field where the response to starter was strong, but adding pop-up didn’t dramatically change yield. That lends me to think that the extra push from the pop-up didn’t put this hybrid in a significantly different pollination time."
Ferrie says there are two keys to placement: put the nutrients where the plant can access them and don’t disrupt the seed.
"No matter what you do with starter application, be careful to not change the planting depth or seed spacing," he says. "If you bring up moist soil with an upfront, row-mounted attachment, use a scraper on the depth wheels to maintain uniform depth. Otherwise, moist soil collects on the depth wheel and changes the planting depth."
Farmers also must keep in mind their purpose for applying the fertilizer.
"This crop wasn’t demanding as much up-front nitrogen," Ferrie says. "As a result, we saw a much stronger response to the phosphate compared with nitrogen placed for early uptake by the plant."
Crop rotation is a factor to consider with starter placement and rate. Both of the test plot fields were corn following soybeans.
"We can dribble nitrogen off the back of the row unit to help meet the nitrogen needs on the surface, but we can’t put phosphate in the same place and expect a timely response," Ferrie says. "Nitrogen is a mobile nutrient. While rainfall might distribute nitrogen in the soil profile for use by the plant, phosphorus is stable and stays where it’s placed."
Feed A Hungry Crop
We can’t talk about starter fertilizer without discussing the phosphorus and nitrogen blend rate.
"A lot of farmers ask, what’s the right mix for my starter blend," Ferrie says. "When talking about starter, you have to keep the corn plant happy."
To learn more about meeting the needs of the corn plant, the plot evaluated blends with three placements: on top, the Huckstep Shoe and the Yetter 2959—all with and without pop-up.
"In 2012, we saw that adding more nitrogen to our blend didn’t increase yields," Ferrie says. "It didn’t matter if we added 7 lb. or 29 lb. of nitrogen to the program, it didn’t mean more yield. Nitrogen wasn’t the limiting factor."
As farmers consider mixes, Ferrie encourages them to consider their management program—step back and say, what do I need more of, phosphate or nitrogen? Ferrie encourages farmers to never let corn have a bad day, but although starter can help give a crop a strong start and meet early nutrient demands, that starter blend has to meet the needs of the crop.
Despite the tough growing season, every test plot is harvested with a calibrated yield monitor and scale cart for data analysis.
"We have to keep in mind that starter is a way to supply what that young plant needs, and in some cases that might just be phosphate, like we saw in these corn after soybean fields," he says. "However, when fields have a high carbon penalty, or a high demand for nitrogen, we need to incorporate that in our starter program."
Ferrie also reminds farmers that for something as immobile as phosphate, applying it in the root zone is key. Whereas nitrogen can be applied on the surface.
Pass the Baton
In a relay race, the baton must be handed off from one runner to the next in a smooth fashion. The same is true when meeting the nutrient demands of a young corn plant as it switches from the seed root to the crown roots.
Wrapping up a multi-year study focusing on starter fertilizer, Bauer’s 2012 harvest yielded lessons in early growth and advancing maturity. The starter studies were conducted in southern Michigan in multiple fields and replicated three or four times at each site.
With placement 2" beside and 2" below the seed, treatments included 19-17-0 at 15 gal. per acre, 21-12-0 at 15 gal. per acre, and 28% at 10 gal. per acre. All treatments had 1 qt. per acre of chelated zinc.
In addition, each analysis was compared with and without pop-up, in-furrow fertilizer, which was 3 gal. per acre of 6-18-6 treated with Avail. The check had 28% dribbled on top of the surface at 10 gal. per acre.
"We were looking for early season growth response," Bauer says. "Taller, bigger plants with more mass."
In 2011 and 2012, Bauer measured the plants at the V4 growth stage. The two-year average showed that the more phosphorus applied, the better the response to increasing plant height.
"Adding pop-up made a difference in all blends," she says. "Having more phosphorus available to the seed roots by placing it in furrow makes a difference."
Also at V4, Bauer measured the phosphorus uptake—a combination of the percent phosphorus in the tissue test and the dry weight of the plants. In 2012, the 21-12-0 with 10 lb. per acre less P2O5 (the form of phosphorus present) than the other starter blend was able to keep similar levels of phosphorus in the plant. Adding pop-up increased and resulted in similar uptake levels regardless the amount of phosphorus in the 2" beside and 2" below placement. In 2011, a cooler and wetter spring than 2012, phosphorus levels in the plant decreased as phosphorus rates decreased, with a much bigger jump compared to the control.
"Environment plays a big role in starter fertilizer response. The cooler, wetter years often have a bigger response in early growth to starter fertilizer, phosphorus and placement," Bauer says. "Placing the phosphorus close to the seed root with in-furrow pop-up increased the level of phosphorus in the plant, sometimes up to 50%."
Adding pop-up to a starter program can lead to an early season response, advancing maturity
to an earlier pollination and quicker dry down at harvest.
"Starter fertilizer can advance maturity and jump-start tasseling—in some cases as much as five to seven days earlier. Farmers should consider that eight out of 10 years it’ll be a good thing to advance maturity," Bauer says. "This advancement in maturity can be seen in ear samples prior to black layer where the milk line is more advanced. At harvest, the corn was drier where the pop-up was applied."
In 2011, Bauer found that starter fertilizer pushed corn into an unfavorable pollination period. Treatments that also included starter applied in-furrow pollinated earlier in hotter weather compared to treatments with only starter applied 2" beside and 2" below the seed.
"The difference in the ears comes from kernel abortion," she says. "If we pollinate at a worse time it may lead to more kernels aborted."
In 2009, advancing maturity and getting to tassel and pollination sooner increased yields in some cases nearly 15 bu. per acre and led to 1.3% drier corn at harvest with the addition of pop-up.
Bauer reminds farmers that advancing maturity with starter fertilizer can often be a good thing, but it is important to understand the weather conditions at pollination through R3 (milk stage).
The biggest takeaway from her studies have been the importance of early phosphorus uptake.
"Phosphorus needs to be close to the roots but not necessarily in a large quantity." Bauer says. "There wasn’t much yield difference between the 19-17-0 and 21-12-0 treatments. But there was an advantage, from 2.5 bu. to 7 bu. per acre, to starter with phosphorus compared with 28% alone. The biggest yield response to applied phosphorus came in management zones with medium level soil test results."
She cautions farmers on two things: be careful cutting phosphorus levels in starter fertilizer if soil test levels are low to medium, and remember there is always a risk with putting fertilizer near the seed, especially in dry conditions and sandy soil.
Thank You to Our Test Plot Partners
AGCO, Ed Barry, David Webster, Luke Olson, Reid Hamre and Lindsey Pettyjohn; Farm Depot and Mark Laethem; Case IH, Dan Klein, Kyle Russell and Ryan Schaefer; Central Illinois Ag and Kip Hoke; Great Plains Manufacturing, Tom Evans, Doug Jennings and John Sites; Kinze Manufacturing and Susanne Veatch; Marco N.P.K. Inc.; New Holland, Mark Hooper, Gary Wojcik and Paul Canavan; Williams Farm Machinery and Dave Gloor; Schaffert Manufacturing and Paul Schaffert; Trimble, Sid Siefkin and Brian Stark; OmniStar and John Pointon; Unverferth Manufacturing and Jerry Ecklund; Wells Equipment; Versatile and Adam Reid; Yetter Manufacturing, Pat Whalen and Scott Cale; The Andersons, Jan Finch and Jeff Balsley; Mike McLaughlin, Steve McLaughlin and Cole Dooley; Don Schlesinger; Bob Kuntz; Terry Finegan; Bob and Mary Kochendorfer; LDK Farms and Leon Knirk; Crop-Tech Consulting, Brad Beutke, Isaac Ferrie, Jason Kienast and Justin Zeeb; and B&M Crop Consulting, Vicki Williams, Gary Cooper and Megan Tomlin.
To see photos of how starter fertilizer impacts early growth, pollination timing, kernel abortion and the difference in milk line, visit www.FarmJournal.com/starter_test_plot
You can e-mail Margy Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org.